Wildsides custom Wildfire Autococker
© Ravi Chopra, 1999
If youve heard of Wildside paintball, youre either from Michigan or youre on the internet. Wildside is a small, Michigan-based custom shop that often gets overshadowed and overlooked as the result of P&P Paintballs dominating nearby presence. What not many people know is that J.D. (owner/proprietor/airsmith) was one of the principal players in the development of AKAs low pressure system for the Autococker (see article in PGI, Oct. 1998, No. 115, pg. 26, or at my web site http://www.paintballravi.com/index.html). As such, it should come as no surprise that Wildside specializes in building low pressure, high-efficiency, custom Autocockers.
An important aspect of Wildsides business is that it is a true custom shop. If you order an Autococker from them, the first thing theyll ask you is what you want on the gun and how you want it set up. This stands in sharp contrast to so many other custom shops that "know whats best for you" and will sell you only that. For those of you who dont know the Autococker well enough to know what you want built into it, Wildside does offer a basic tournament upgrade package.
The crucial point to understand here is that the gun I was sent to review (a Wildfire Autococker) is a true custom gun with a true custom price tag ($1860 out the door). This Autococker was built to very specific customer requirements and differs from the base Wildfire package significantly. As such, many of this paintguns features are quite different from what you would typically expect to find in a top-dollar Autococker. So please remember while reading this that many of these upgrades were customer requests. Ill try to note the specific customer requests as I go through, and at the end Ill describe the base Wildfire package.
As always, Ive broken the description of the Autococker down into its various components: trigger, pneumatics, internals, accessories & extras, and cosmetics.
The trigger is your main interaction with the Autococker (or any paintgun for that matter). Apart from reliability, this is the one aspect of the paintgun that will most importantly determine how happy you are with it. J.D. agrees with me on this point. Because of this, he spends quite a bit of time with each new gun buyer finding out how he/she wants the trigger to feel and builds it to those specs.
The basis of the trigger system is the trigger frame. Though Wildside typically builds Wildfire Autocockers with P&P .45 frames, the person this gun was being built for wanted a stock frame anodized to match the rest of the gun (more on the anodizing job in the cosmetics section). As most people know, the stock frame can not be anodized. What is less well known is that some years back, Smart Parts had a number of aluminum stock cocker and mag frames made up that could be anodized. These frames are no longer produced, but Wildside bought up the last of them from Smart Parts for just this kind of customer. This frame has had a number of modifications made for "fit and function" as JD puts it. As with any good custom Autococker trigger, this frame has also been equipped with a front trigger guide screw and trigger-stop. This trigger does not have any modification to lift (rear trigger-guide screw) or fix the height (bent trigger-plate) of the back of the trigger-plate. What this means is that, though the front of the trigger does not have any slack (the front guide screw is perfectly set), the back of the plate is free to wiggle up and down, allowing some rotational slack. Though the feel is not bad, it doesnt have the "riding on rails" feel that some other cockers Ive reviewed recently had.
The trigger is very smooth, though. The stainless trigger plate, sear plate, and wide, flat-bottomed lug have all been meticulously polished. Ironically, you dont get much chance to notice how smooth the trigger action is because the pull is exceedingly short.
The fact of the matter is this is the shortest trigger pull Ive ever encountered in an Autococker. He tells me that he normally sets them up a bit longer than this, but the buyer wanted this trigger ASAP (as short as possible) and thats what he got. The stock WGP Autococker has a trigger pull of about 5mm. The shortest Id seen before this was only 3mm. This trigger pull weighs in at an impressive 2.75mm. Ive almost always found triggers set this short to have reliability problems due to 4-way leaks and sear-lug slipover. Wildside dodged these two problems through good design and intelligent parts selection.
To avoid 4-way problems, he used the excellent Palmer 4-way switch, which has an exceedingly short throw, and an internal design that avoids uneven seal wear (more on this later). To avoid sear-lug slip, he uses the popular fat sear-lug, but cuts the bottom flat and square to catch and hold the sear tenaciously. This does lead to a very hard snap when the trigger is pulled, but a round-bottom lug could never be made to work with a trigger set this short. The trigger worked very reliably while I had it, but I can not say with certainty how long-term wear will affect the sear-lug interface and how well it will hold.
Coupling the 4-way to the trigger is LAPCOs best-in-the-business threaded timing rod and coupler, hammered flat to further shorten the trigger pull. In addition to hammering it flat where it goes through the trigger plate, the rod is also milled out a bit at the bend so it doesnt bump into the grip frame and lever out to the side. Allowing the rod to bend out to the side can lead to excessive 4-way wear and leaks.
Given the exceedingly short pull, it should be obvious that this cocker is extremely closely timed. The cocking point of the trigger pull falls immediately after the firing point. Using the terminology I coined in the Shocktech cocker review, this would definitely be a type-B trigger. Coupled with the sears hard-snap release, it is virtually impossible to short-stroke as the force required to get the sear to drop is more than enough to carry the pull through the cocking stage of the cycle.
Though the selection of a stock frame is a total mystery to me (I cant stand them!), J.D. has managed to build a unique pull into it which will undoubtedly appeal to a quite a few players. Though the trigger is relatively lightly sprung, the combination of the hard snap release and the very short pull leaves it with an almost Automag-like feel. In fact, people looking for that silky smooth trigger feel so commonly associated with Autocockers will probably not find this to their tastes. If youre looking for extremely short and crisp, though, this is your baby.
Pneumatics form the Autocockers engine. Theyre the tubes and hoses that stick out in front of the Autococker and cycle the back block and bolt, and retract the hammer. This custom Wildfire Autococker was equipped with a full set of high-performance aftermarket parts as would be expected in any big-dollar Autococker. Just about all of the parts included on the gun I reviewed are (again, at customer request) actually different from what J.D. normally builds into the base Wildfire. Theyre really no better than what he typically installs, but they did jack the price up quite a bit.
To start, the autococking system regulator is ANSs Jackhammer: a reg that has taken a sizable chunk of the business that was originally staked out and is still dominated by Palmers Rock. It has a big fat knob up front for quick and easy adjustments and it shares several internal parts with the Automag AIR valve so it can be rebuilt at the field unlike other regs that share this market segment.
The ram is also by ANS: the small and short stainless steel Mini-Ram. This ram is very smooth and has a quick action. It should be known, though, that due to the very small cross sectional area, this ram does require a slightly higher pressure to operate than larger rams. Though I have heard some reports that this ram has some tendency to leak, I did not experience any problems with the one on this gun while I had it.
As I mentioned in the trigger section, the 4-way installed on this Autococker is the superb Palmer quick-switch. I could dedicate a whole article to describing the benefits of this 4-way. For now, Ill just point out its superior characteristics. It has a very short throw: as short as or shorter than any other valve on the market. It also has a more complex (by 4-way standards) internal design that reduces o-ring wear and ensures that they wear evenly unlike other short-throw 4-ways which suffer uneven wear (and thus leaks) where the o-ring passes the outlet holes. Finally, the Palmer 4-way opens and seals very quickly. Other 4-ways tend to have a short distance in between where they allow a slow leak through before sealing or opening completely. This can cause problems when you are trying to time an extremely short trigger like the one found on this gun. Not so with the Palmer switch which goes from completely sealed to wide open over a negligible distance.
Rounding out the cocking system is a stainless steel pump rod and the custom P-block. These are not quite as light as titanium and smaller blocks, but then Ive never really put all that much stock in the supposed benefits from tiny reductions in weight in autococking components. Suffice it to say, this system is easily fast enough to keep up with the trigger, even when fanned.
For most people, the internals are shrouded in mystery. Theyre parts that are installed, set up, and forgotten. They function invisibly to deliver gas to the back of the paintball. While it is well known that the internals strongly impact the operating pressure and efficiency, every airsmith out there has his own theory as to the best internals to install and how to set them up (read: spring them) to get the best performance. As one of the people who helped in the development of the AKA low pressure system, it should come as no surprise that many of those parts comprise the core of the Wildfires gas-delivery system and that the gun is built to run at very low operating pressures.
The heart of the system is the Tornado valve, a low pressure only, stainless steel valve that comes with a lifetime warranty on the cup-seal. In front of this is the ANS air reservoir, replacing the front-block retention screw. This part is particularly important given that this particular gun is a Minicocker with a very small native valve chamber. This is not AKAs Mitey Max reservoir, but lets face it; an empty chamber is an empty chamber. There is no difference in performance between the two.
The bolt is a modified Lightning bolt that has been trimmed down slightly in front. This is probably the most free-flowing bolt on the market and is an absolute necessity for the lowest operating pressure.
If you want to read the whole story about this gas-delivery system, you can read my full review article about it at my web site or in the October, 1998 issue of Paintball Games International. In short, this is an extremely expensive system that also happens to work quite well. It provides the lowest operating pressures Ive seen in an Autococker (270 fps at 170 psi, 300 fps at 210 psi), and impressive efficiency (1200-1400 shots from a 68 ci 3000 psi nitrogen system, depending on paint-barrel fit). It is extremely sensitive to input pressure, so you must use a very consistent air source to get good results. Velocity is set by adjusting the input pressure, so an externally adjustable secondary regulator (or an extremely consistent primary, as in the Max-Flow) is required as part of your feed. It is also exceedingly difficult to get installed and running properly. Fortunately, J.D. is highly experienced at this and does the job very well.
The final internal component is the hammer/velocity adjuster kit. Again, J.D. went with the ANS stainless steel kit.
This is a high quality, albeit expensive set of internals. This is not the right stuff for people with dreams of tinkering with the internal settings themselves, though. It definitely requires a deft and experienced hand to get the AKA system running properly. Fortunately, the only contact the average player has with this is to adjust the velocity through the external reg. People who demand the lowest operating pressure and highest possible efficiency will definitely find a lot to be happy with here.
Accessories & Extras
In a gun this expensive, youd certainly expect to find a lot of extra bits and pieces to give it an edge in convenience and custom performance. In this Wildfire, you got em!
Ill start with the gun body itself. This Autococker was cut down to a Minicocker and a stainless steel vertical ASA was threaded into the bottom of the front block. By customer request, this gun was built around a left-feed body; not my favorite by any means. Fortunately, J. D. does offer both right and center feed models as well.
The beavertail is a slanted, custom-made piece that does effectively keep the block and cocking rod from smacking you in the face. Unfortunately, it does absolutely nothing to prevent you from thumbing the rod and shooting hot. It looks nice, but it doesnt do what its meant to.
The bolt and back block were built with Wildsides cool new bolt-locking system. Using a system that is actually quite similar to the bolt-retention system on the Blazer, the pin can snap in and out, but does not completely leave the bolt. When it is snapped out a notch, it can slide in and out of the back block through a slot. When it is slid in all the way, the pin can be snapped in, locking the bolt in place. This one was custom made for this gun from titanium, kicking the price up further.
Ive already mentioned the inexplicable use of a stock grip frame on this gun. I guess there are some freaks out there who actually prefer this atrocity. For those of you who fit that description, let it be known that Wildside will be happy to do full, and not-at-all-bad work on Autocockers with stock frames. What I find completely inexcusable is the use of stock grips! There is absolutely no excuse for putting these uncomfortable, cheap, Quasimodo-looking, plastic grips on an over-$1800 paintgun. VLs rubber wraparounds or Smart Parts wood replacements would have been a gigantic improvement in this area.
Moving back to sunnier pastures, Wildfire Autocockers with the AKA low pressure setup get one of Palmers Stabilizer regulators to calm the vicious pressure swings of whatever nasty gas you choose to feed it. This has long been one of my favorite regulators. Theyre not as stylish and ginchy as Air Americas regulators, but theyre well priced and offer superb low pressure performance, both in flow and consistency.
Normally, Wildside includes either an aluminum LAPCO or J&J Full Tilt barrel. In a move that puzzles me still, the customer requested a stainless steel LAPCO barrel. This gun was milled down significantly for both looks and to reduce weight. Stainless steel is absurdly heavy and doesnt shoot any better than aluminum (in my experience). LAPCOs stainless barrels are particularly massive. With the 12" stainless monster installed on this paintgun, it becomes seriously front-heavy. Dont get me wrong. Ive long been a fan of LAPCOs barrels which Ive found to shoot as well as (or better than) the best barrels out there, but at a much lower price. I just think the aluminum variant would have been a much better choice.
In more mass madness, the nitrogen system included with this custom Wildfire was a 68 ci PMS Mini-Reg system. This system has one of the new ultra-light carbon-fiber bottles screwed into a beefy, nose-heavy, brass regulator that actually mounts forward of the grip in its bottom-line cradle. I like the light weight of the bottle, but it does nothing to counterbalance the 12 ton barrel and heavy reg. The overall resulting package is a gun so front-heavy that it wants to pitch over forward and bury its snout in the dirt. The performance of the PMS nitro system is adequate, and really quite irrelevant given that the Stabilizer has the final say in what the gun finally receives. For a system with a screw-in bottle (some people prefer fixed-bottle), this one is actually quite nice, and a vast improvement over the original Mini-Reg systems PMS was selling a couple years ago. The valve in the bottle now has a pin-valve rather than the impossible-to-turn on/off. The pin valve also now includes the fill-nipple on the bottle, allowing you to fill the bottle when it is not threaded into the tank and eliminating the need for the special fill adapter the old system required. Ill admit that Im also no big fan of the stock, bent-sheet-metal bottom-line cradle that comes with this nitro system. It positions the tank well but it doesnt look particularly elegant (in fact it just looks cheap), nor does it look particularly sturdy.
As with any Autococker this expensive, one of the big stories is how good it looks. The mill pattern seen on the Wildfire series of Autocockers from Wildside is the one you see on this gun. Its a sort of figure-eight pattern that continues from the back-block all the way forward to the front. It has a unique, somewhat more squared-off P-block that differentiates it from the masses of Evolution look-alikes out there. Finally, the sight rail has been ramped off in the front, rounded at the back, and has a half-arc shaped groove sweeping through it behind the feed-tube and overhanging the P-block. That isnt the whole story, though. There is a tremendous attention to detail in the milling of this paintgun that isnt readily obvious without a close look. The front of the body must be left in its stock rectangular shape to hold the front-block firmly in place. This transition is made with smooth, gentle curves. Similar treatment is given to the back-block where it curves out to meet the integral pull-pin and pump-rod. This is not the most elaborate mill-work Ive ever seen. In fact, I think it would look even better with some more surface cuts to really set off its striking curves. That said, it is extremely cleanly done and the attention to detail equals or betters the best work Ive seen to date.
It also came with a Minicocker length shroud with vertical slots like the Autocockers shroud (the stock Minicockers shroud normally has angled back gills). A small hole was cut in the front fabric to allow the Jackhammers knob to poke through. The shroud also has a mirror-polished Pro-Team gill-cut cover slipped over the fabric grip.
Probably the most striking aspect of this paintguns cosmetics is the lightning pattern graphic anodizing. This work was done by PK Selective, one of the big dogs in the business of anodizing custom paintball equipment. The look was that of lightning-bolts cris-crossing over a black background. Glowing purple halos fade out to black around each bolt. The effect is very cool. More impressive is how the lightning played over the entire guns surface. They had clearly assembled it to some extent while they were laying down the lightning pattern because the lightning forms continuous bolts that cross from body to grip-frame, and from body to block. The parts were obviously meticulously polished prior to anodizing because the finish was flawless and had the glossy luster seen in the very best anodizing jobs.
Rounding off the cosmetic package is the full silver-look. The pneumatics up front are all chrome and nickel plated. The Stabilizer is nickel-plated. The hose between the nitro system and Stabilizer is steel-braid and all the fittings are chromed or nickeled. The pump and cocking rods, as well as all the screws are stainless steel. The trigger-shoe was chrome plated. Even the drop-forward mount for the nitrogen system was polished to a mirror-shine. The only part that marred the otherwise perfectly consistent look was the big honking ugly brass nitrogen regulator. Its like finding a big red clown nose on the Mona Lisa. Yuk.
Anyhow, if you can ignore the nitro system, this is one sharp looking paintgun. The millwork is clean, unique, and attractive, the attention to detail is first rate, and the anodizing is gorgeous.
Wildside is a small, local custom shop in Michigan. They dont have the money or resources to sponsor a major pro-team or to advertise widely. As a result, theyve gone largely unnoticed outside of their own state. In fact, Wildsides strongest supporters are locals who spread the word over the internet. After my experiences with this gun, I can understand their enthusiasm. J.D. is personable and knowledgeable and genuinely seems interested in building the guns his customers want rather than the cockers he likes best. He takes a very strong and personal interest in each gun he builds and tests each one exhaustively before letting it out of his store.
That said, I really wish I could have reviewed a more representative example of his work. The Wildfire I reviewed had a lot of customer-requested substitutions and additions that are quite different from what most people are looking for in a custom Autococker. These many changes also brought the price way up into the upper echelons of the most expensive Autocockers available.
Given what was requested on this Autococker, J.D. did an impressive job. The trigger was extremely short and snappy: as close to an Automag as an Autococker has ever felt to me before. The components are all cutting edge and work very well together. Low pressure and high efficiency are areas in which this gun excels. Though cosmetics are a matter of personal taste, I can say with certainty that the quality of the work Wildside does is certainly not lacking in any way. J.D.s attention to detail in preparing the gun is absolutely superb.
On the minus side, I didnt like the use of stock grips. It also didnt balance particularly well; it was very nose-heavy. Though there were no problems during the short time I had this gun, I also have some small concern about long-term reliability with a trigger set this short. Granted, these are all issues related to the parts requested by the customer for whom this gun was built. Finally, even with the nitrogen system, $1860 is a lot of money for an Autococker from a shop that doesnt have a big, well known name.
Ill finish here by noting that for much less money, you can have the base Wildfire Autococker. Firstly and most thankfully, the base Wildfire comes with a P&P .45 frame and Hogue grips. A Rock reg, Clippard ram, and stock WGP 4-way complete the pneumatics up front rather than the ANS and Palmer parts. The base gun also comes with an aluminum LAPCO or J&J barrel, a standard pull-pin for bolt retention, the stock WGP exhaust valve and guide, a more standard beavertail, one-color anodizing, and no nitrogen system. Other than that, everything else is the same (including the millwork and P-block!). The price: $950. Though I did not have the opportunity to test one myself, I feel quite comfortable in saying that the base gun would shoot at least as well if not better than the over-$1800 gun I tested here. The only parts Id really consider adding back in for performance improvements would be the Tornado valve and Palmer 4-way.
All material at this site is © Ravi Chopra, 1999